Federal Judge Rules Against Joe Arpaio in Landmark Class-Action Jail Lawsuit

By John Dickerson

In a major blow to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, U.S. District Judge Neil Wake ruled just minutes ago in a landmark class-action lawsuit that Maricopa County jails do not meet constitutional standards.

The order from the federal judge comes on the heels of the revocation of Arpaio's jail accreditation last month by the country's premiere independent jail-healthcare-monitoring agency.

“We won, basically,” attorney Debra Hill, who represented inmates in the lawsuit, said after Wake's ruling.

Hill represents the "class" of all pretrial detainees awaiting court trials in Arpaio's jails. The ACLU worked closely with Hill on the case. Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said the ruling is a big win.

“Sheriff Arpaio’s horrendous treatment of detainees, especially those with severe medical and mental-health problems, has caused terrible suffering for years,” Winter said. “Judge Wake’s decision should serve as a reminder that even a man who brags about being the 'toughest sheriff in America' has to abide by the Constitution.”

Details of Wake's four-page judgment and 83-page findings of fact will take attorneys a little time to decipher. In short, though, the order demands that Arpaio's jails meet a number of specific standards.

For example, “Defendants shall ensure that the pretrial detainees’ prescription medications are provided without interruption.”

And, “Defendants shall provide pretrial detainees who are taking prescribed psychotropic medications with housing in which the temperature does not exceed 85° F.” (In other words, they cannot be housed in outdoor Tent City.)

And, “Defendants shall provide food to pretrial detainees that meets or exceeds the United States Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” (In other words, no moldy bread and green baloney.)

The order requires Arpaio and the county to give attorney Hill and the ACLU quarterly reports about jail conditions. If the jails do not comply with the long list of new standards, then Hill and the ACLU can bring violations back before Judge Wake.

The judge even set a time to meet if Arpaio doesn't comply with the new standards -- December 5.

It’s unlikely that the sheriff will be able, by early December, to make much headway toward complying with the 16 big changes ordered. Some -- such as one that requires that only two inmates be incarcerated per cell at the Towers Jail -- will be affected by prisoner overcrowding.

Under-staffing and poor record-keeping by the MCSO may also get in the way of other changes coming about soon. But the order leads advocates of humane jail conditions to believe that the stubborn sheriff can no longer thumb his nose at pleas for reform.

Wake's ruling is one of several political setbacks Arpaio has suffered in recent weeks as he is running for reelection against Democrat Dan Saban.

“Sheriff Arpaio’s actions have gone unchecked for too long, and this ruling is a significant step toward much-needed accountability,” said Daniel Pochoda, attorney with the ACLU of Arizona. “It's time that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and all of the residents of Maricopa County take action to end his abusive practices.”

The name of the class-action suit has changed several times. It was originally Hart v. Hill, then Hart v. Arpaio. and now Graves v. Arpaio.

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John Dickerson
Contact: John Dickerson